It’s not often that I read something in Boston Magazine that gets me thinking about the deeper moral implications of one’s actions. But there is an article in October’s issue, the entire issue is dedicated to “Envy”, that got me to think about what it means to be authenticate in a world of copy cats.
The article is here:
Essentially there is a newish restaurant in town that has gotten a very large amount of critical acclaim in a seemingly short amount of time. After Frank Bruni gushed about it in the New York Times (he did say that all the places review was only stellar because they had the handicap of being outside of NYC, um thanks Frank?. A move that is sooo typically Frank Bruni), the place seemed to explode in terms of exposure. I would talk to people about Oisshii and instantly, I’d get the one up stance of “Yes, but have you been to Oya? Really, no? Then you have no idea what sushi truly can be!”.
Seriously? As someone who happened to own one of the first stores to appear in Boston dedicated to jeans, I know first hand what it’s like to be suddenly told that the younger, newer kid on the block is outshining you. I’m of the belief that there is room enough for all of us. But Bostonians tend to believe, in true Highlander form, that “there can be only one”. It’s a mentality not exclusive to Boston, but in a town trying to called a cosmopolitan city (look we have a new Mandarin Oriental Hotel and a new huge Apple store, look look!), well it’s very, very cut throat because there aren’t as many people to impress as say New York. However, even with how competitive Boston is, there are certain rules of protocol and decency.
I think that because Boston is small, most people in any given service industry know each other…And it is mostly through personal encounters. It’s not surprising when a Sales Rep calls me at work and says amazed “Everyone in this town who owns a shop knows you!. Well, in a place as small as Boston that’s not surprising. If I go into a locally owned shop, even if I know I’m just there to pick up a dress or a candle, if I find myself mentally taking notes of the layout or the brands, I will then make an effort to introduce myself and honestly, let the person know what I’m doing. This not only clears my conscious but is the right thing to do in such a small town. I don’t want anyone thinking I’m taking clues from them in a dishonest fashion.
Our new store has a dressing room fashioned after the one’s at Stel’s. I went in and told Tina and John exactly what I wanted to do and with their blessing was told how-to. I know that Nilda from Parlor has called other shops to make sure it’s cool with them to carry a line and I’ve also placed similar calls to other shops and even canceled orders because a friend told me that they wanted the exclusive to a line which they made a good case/point about. This might sound a lot like we’re mixing business with personal but none of us entered this industry for purely business reasons. Granted we all want to make money and make a living, but owning a business is like sharing a huge piece of your personal side. You sell the things you love and you talk about how it came to appear in your shop. Those stories are often hugely personal. Very rarely, did anyone else to see a performance chart regarding what brand/models/colors sell the best and go from there. It’s often about gut and feeling. I had a gut feeling that Rag &Bone would explode. I had a gut feeling that Sevens would do well for us.
As a chef, I would imagine, a lot of it is gut as well. But you can’t make the call to a supplier and say “I’d like you stop selling ketchup to XYZ” because I have ketchup too. You can’t protect the brands/supplies but you can protect the way you put things together and the way you display your talent.
Pictures, films, music and words are easily protected from plagiarizing. Just look at even food blogs these days. One of the major ones I read on a regular basis went after another blog for not only stealing her photos but her recipes as well. We’re talking almost came to a lawsuit. Another one I use to follow shut down, because the food blog community for not sighting properly where her recipes came from shunned her. This might seem like a lot from food blogs…but it’s now a clear understanding of a violation of a larger theme. There are few things that a chef can really protect and doesn’t he/she have a right to do so?
So in a city/town as small as Boston is, for the owners of O Ya to not come entirely clean about what they were up to, even if it meant nothing to them (which clear is not the case because the guy was taking copious notes) when visiting Uni and Oisshii is not only very dishonest and bad form, it should border on illegal. This might seem like a harsh thing to write but think about it. The entire Cindy McCain stolen recipes from Food Network might had not been so bad had someone on staff just added the caveat that the recipes were “inspired” from ones on the Food Network website. We’re clearly all influenced by other things around us and for the owners of O Ya to even just say, “yes, I was very influenced by my meals at those places but it’s deeper than that. He really studied that was going on there. He had the menus faxed to him twice a week and appeared at the restaurants for dinner and was never honest about who he truly was.
Perhaps, any place else, this man’s actions might make sense but not in a town like Boston. And it’s not about a “fraternity of chefs” or a “fraternity of store owners” or even about ENVY. Rather, it’s about being able to wake up every morning knowing that YOU came up with the ideas for what to carry in your store, that YOU made the decision how to put ingredients together. It’s about true integrity and honesty and how we as a community (small or large) and society award such efforts.